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Iceland: Land of fire and ice

Iceland: Land of fire and ice

30 Oct 2017 Travel Stories, Travel Tips

Words by Daniel Scott

Every turn you take in Iceland reveals another unforgettable scene shaped by nature. One of the world’s youngest landmasses, formed about 25 million years ago around the Mid-Atlantic ridge, where North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, it is still an island in the making. Few places on earth seem so alive. Volcanoes simmer and occasionally blow their top, recent eruptions including that of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which threw up such a cloud of ash that air travel was disrupted across Europe for weeks. Giant glaciers, including Europe's largest Vatnajökull, slide down the slopes of mountains and still active cones. Chunks of ice as big as houses crack and split off them and slipping away into the lagoons beneath. 

In summer, as the snow thaws and melts in the mountains, torrents of unstoppable water are let loose, producing spectacular waterfalls in every nook, cranny and corner of Iceland. The entire landscape seems to fizzle and broil with mudpots, steaming fumaroles and even undersea vents; the planet’s natural geo-thermal energy providing more than 25 percent of the nation’s power. Temperatures may seldom rise above 15°c, even in summer, in this country almost abutting the Arctic Circle. But the wind, rain and occasionally snow-swept terrain loses none of its appeal due to bad weather. When the sun does appear, it brings a gleam and a reflective glory to lagoons, fishing harbours and fjords. 

Far from mirroring the cold outside, Icelandic people are warm, funny and creative, more like the Irish than their Scandinavian cousins, a legacy of Viking expansion a thousand years ago. Music is Iceland’s combustible human energy, with levels of talent far outweighing its 334,000 population. This lends a weird, diverse and wonderful soundtrack to the mesmerising sights.

Reykjavik, the capital, is the starting point for most. It’s as big as the big smoke gets here, housing over a third of the population, yet it is barely able to accommodate to influx of tourists. Nordic cuisine is all the rage in town, with restaurants like Messin and the harbourside Hofnin, presenting a modern take on Icelandic classics like cod cheeks and shellfish soup.

Akureyri, set prettily at the end of a long, deep fjord in North Iceland, is the country’s second biggest city, with a population of just 18,000. Other characterful little fishing towns are interspersed around the coast.  Some like Stykkisholmur, on the western Snaefellsnes peninsula, near Reykjavik, are familiar from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Others like Seyðisfjörður, on the remote East coast, are recognisable from SBS’s gripping Scandi Noir crime series, Trapped.

While more affordable than before the global financial crisis, which saw some of the country’s prominent bankers jailed, Iceland is not a destination for those on a budget.  A simple bowl of meat soup with bread can cost as much as $27 in some tourist spots. However, such costs have done nothing to slow down the growth of tourism over recent years. Sights like the Blue Lagoon and the ‘Golden Circle’ of attractions near Reykjavik are full to brimming during the warmer, lighter months between June and September.

The further you venture from the capital, preferably by driving around the island via its ring road, the less obscured by others becomes your view. Whether it be fields of hardened lava, twisted into gnarly shapes, that stretch for kilometres in areas like the Beserkers in the west, or snow-capped mountains glowering over fjords in the north, or the glacier clad southern shores lined by black sand beaches - this is not scenery to hurry through. Rather, Iceland is a place in which to lie on a mossy bank and feel the earth rumble beneath you. It is a place where you get close to the unstoppable force of nature at waterfalls like Dettifoss and Godafoss, and where you see two gargantuan continental plates cleaving apart, at two centimetres per year, in rift valleys and open fissures like those at Þingvellir National Park.  Once the meeting place for the country’s open-air parliament, between 930Ad and 1798, Þingvellir is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

Perhaps more than anywhere else on earth, Iceland is a destination in which to experience the right here, right now, in which to see the planet evolve before your very eyes.

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